08 October 2017

The Righteous Empress Myeongseong of Joseon

Empress Myeongseong

Empress Myeongseong of the Kingdom of Korea is a fascinating figure who, although I have mentioned her once before on my blog, is much worthier of study than I had first thought. She was, after all, the one primarily responsible for the welcoming climate that Christians have since found in Korea, even though she never became Christian herself. Despite this, I consider her a martyr: killed unjustly by the agents of a hostile and revolutionary foreign power, for her pro-Christian and pro-Russian sympathies.

Empress Myeongseong was born Min Jayeong to the scion of a respectable, but impoverished, family of gentry in Yeoju in central Korea. Despite growing up in poverty, she was bright and well-read in the Chinese Classics, and apparently a bit too independent-minded than was fashionable for a Korean woman of the gentry class. She was introduced as a suitable bride to King Gojong by his father and regent, Heungseon Daewongun, for two simple reasons: as a noblewoman, her bloodline was suitable; but as a poor woman, her family would not be in any position to cause dynastic troubles. She also was described as having a pleasant face, a good physique, and a suitable education. The Heungseon therefore thought her a harmless and pliant wife for his son, who would not make waves or rock the boat. That was the Heungseon’s great mistake.

Gojong married Miss Min in an elaborate ceremony when she was sixteen years old and he fifteen. It became clear that the newly-crowned Queen Min had a mind of her own and did not behave like other court ladies. Instead of attending to social functions, she kept to herself, reading the Chunqiu and the Old Text Zuo Commentary, cultivating her knowledge of history, science, philosophy and political œconomy. She did not have a high opinion of her husband at first – Gojong being something of a party animal by temperament, she tended to belittle him. However, when Gojong’s majority came, he found a firm supporter in Queen Min, who advocated quietly but firmly – against the Heungseon, earning her his mortal enmity – that it was only just for her husband ought to rule in his own right, rather than being the puppet of a regent. This she did through Choe Ik-hyeon, a neo-Confucian scholar who argued that the rules of propriety demanded a clear rectification of the titles between lord and vassal, and assailed the Heungseon in fiery invective terms for his corruption and immorality. Gojong, grateful for this assistance and finding himself in need of his wife’s intelligence and erudition to rule the country, soon developed a firm respect for her. And she, seeing his serious turn, reciprocated that respect.

In their early years, King Gojong spent his time with other women and neglected Queen Min. She only became pregnant with his child five years into their marriage, as he began relying on her more. Eventually she gave birth to a boy, but this child died at only four days old, under suspicious circumstances. Queen Min blamed the Heungseon for the baby’s death, and moved to have him removed from the court permanently, along with his supporters. She and Gojong would eventually have another son, Sunjong, but this son would grow up sickly.

Both King Gojong and Queen Min shared a belief that both of the reigning foreign policies favoured by the Korean political establishment and the yangban – of total isolation on the one side, and of appeasement towards Japan on the other – were mistakes. They witnessed the decline of Qing China and the rise of Japan under the Meiji with alarm, and began studying the Japanese path of modernisation. To counterbalance the influence of Japan, Queen Min sent ambassadors to American President Chester Arthur, and invited advisers from Russia and America, as well as Christian missionaries, into the country. However, she herself was not in favour of a Meiji-style reform. There was a ‘progressive’ clique of yangban who advocated for a full and immediate Westernisation at the cost of relations with China; Min, who favoured the conservative-reformist and pro-Chinese Sadae faction, understood well that cutting ties with China the way the progressives wanted would only mean, in the end, a swifter capitulation to the Japanese.

Queen Min supported education in scholastics and manners for Korean girls, and appealed to American Methodist missionaries to make this a possibility. With Queen Min’s blessing, the Ihwa Academy was founded by Mary Scranton for the purpose. Under Queen Min, also, the first newspaper press was organised, the first factories were founded, telegraph lines were laid, and Western agricultural methods were introduced from the United States. Russian Ambassador to Joseon, N. A. Svishchiy, sent a memorandum to his superiors in Russia detailing Queen Min’s tolerance of Christianity generally and her interest in Russia specifically, prompting the establishment of a mission which eventually turned into the Orthodox Metropolia of Korea.

Again, however, Queen Min was not interested in altering the spiritual basis of her society. She was herself a Buddhist and a Confucian to the end. Though she did not like her husband at first, she was loyal to him alone and eventually earned his trust, respect and love – and learned to trust, respect and love him back. She lay a great deal of emphasis on appropriate relationships. She looked, not to Germany as Japan had, but instead to Russia for inspiration: a traditional power with a traditional religion, which was attempting to modernise at its own pace and on its own terms.

But even though she had accomplished much in her career, she made powerful enemies among Korea’s yangban class – the most dangerous of whom was the Heungseon. Needless to say, her anti-Japanese stance did not endear her to that government, either. The Heungseon enlisted the help of the Japanese minister Miura Gorô in a conspiracy to assassinate Queen Min. This assassination, this heinous and despicable crime against Heaven, was carried out on the eighth of October, 1895. With the aid of troops loyal to the Heungseon, Japanese assassins, acting under direct orders from Miura, entered the palace, subdued the king (who had tried to interpose himself bodily between the assassins and the women’s chambers), and sought out the palace women. They found three women, dragged them forcibly out into the courtyard, stomped on their prone bodies, hacked them brutally to death with blades, sexually molested and defiled their corpses. When one of them was identified as Queen Min, they burned her and scattered the ashes – the final and most outrageous sacrilege upon the body of a Confucian woman like Min.

The reaction to this brutal regicide was instantaneous and it was outraged. The Russians in particular were moved to fury at this brazen, shameless and damnable act of lèse-majesté, this superlatively-hideous murder and defilement of a Korean royal by Japanese thugs and dog-officials, and lost no time moving against the Japanese in Korea. Ambassador K. I. Veber, upon hearing of the incident, assured King Gojong of his government’s support against this brutishness, which the King accepted. Russian officials and military assisted King Gojong in retaking the palace from the Japanese and expelling the traitors who had allowed his beloved wife to be massacred. Unfortunately, the newfound Korean self-assertion under King Gojong would be short-lived, as Tsarist Russia herself would soon be embroiled in a war against Japanese aggression.

It quickly became clear to all observers that the barbarous assassination of Queen Min had been the result of a Japanese conspiracy at a very high level, with the Heungseon as co-instigator. The primary conspirators were part of a political clique centred in Kumamoto Prefecture, and included not only Miura Gorô but also the oligarch Inoue Kaoru and the statesman Itô Hirobumi, who was informed of Miura’s plan, and who himself would later be killed by Thomas An (a Roman Catholic advocate of Korean independence) in retaliation. A number of other members of the Japanese legation and the Imperial Japanese Army were directly implicated. In response to international outrage and pressure, the Meiji government orchestrated a sham trial which, disgustingly, exonerated all fifty-six of the arraigned blackguards and regicidal scum on a legal technicality, even though enough evidence was indeed available to the Japanese government to convict Miura at least.

At least a handful of Japanese moderns have some sense of compunction for the bloody event. The descendants of two of the assassins came to Namyangju in 2005 to offer their personal and heartfelt apologies to the soul of Queen Min on behalf of their ancestors. However, there has as yet been no apology forthcoming from the Japanese government itself for this crime against Heaven, for which they made themselves directly responsible when they acquitted Miura.

As for Queen Min herself – titled Empress Myeongseong after her murder – she was a Cassandra for her people. She spoke only the truth to the yangban, but she was not believed in her own time, either by the progressives or by the isolationists, that the moderate, measured reforms she sought were necessary. Like Cassandra, too, she faced a bloody end precisely on account of her perspicacity, forethought and care for her people. Her treatment of Christians in Korea was correct and gracious; if we Orthodox do not view Empress Myeongseong as a holy martyr, than we must at least acknowledge her as one among the righteous pagans who kept the law written on their hearts.
Have mercy, O Lord, on the soul of Thy servant Empress Myeongseong.
Unsearchable are Thy judgements.
Let not this prayer of mine be counted as sin, but let Thy will be done.

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